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Biden’s Trip Masks a United States Still at War in the Middle East

Despite grand proclamations of withdrawal, U.S. forces are still fighting in the region.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. and Israeli leaders stand in front of Israel’s Iron Dome system.
U.S. and Israeli leaders stand in front of Israel’s Iron Dome system.
From left to right, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and U.S. Defense Attaché to Israel Brig. Gen. Shawn Harris stand in front of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system during a tour at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israeli, on July 13. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and beyond, Italy’s wavering government, Sri Lanka’s protests, Ukraine’s grain hopes, and more news worth following from around the world.

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The Middle East Commitment

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, looking at the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and beyond, Italy’s wavering government, Sri Lanka’s protests, Ukraine’s grain hopes, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


The Middle East Commitment

U.S. President Joe Biden continues his visit to Israel today as he seeks to put a new gloss on the United States’ presence in the Middle East by championing regional cooperation as a remedy for U.S. withdrawal.

The problem with that approach is U.S. military force is still very much alive in the region—Biden himself told Israeli media on Wednesday that he was ready to use it as a “last resort” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

As Fiona Harrigan wrote in Reason on Monday, Biden’s claim in a Washington Post op-ed to be the “the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there” doesn’t quite hold up.

On Tuesday, a U.S. drone strike killed a senior Islamic State leader in Syria. As the New York Times reports, the raid comes amid an uptick in U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria. A U.S. commando raid to seize an Islamic State bomb-maker last month echoed similar boots-on-the-ground operations, such as the one that killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State’s leader, in February.

Biden, himself, appears to be at odds with his own proclamations. On June 8, Biden sent a letter to Congress on U.S. troop deployments and listed U.S. personnel engaged in combat operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Significant numbers of U.S. troops are still stationed in the region: 2,833 U.S. service members are deployed in Jordan while around 2,733 U.S. service members are in Saudi Arabia.

Although muddled messaging on U.S. military adventures abroad is not new for U.S. presidents, it comes at a time when U.S. operations are no longer confined to the Middle East.

Recently, the clandestine fights have broadened in geographic scope and increasingly involve missions in African nations. It’s part of a concept Katherine Yon Ebright, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, described as “light footprint warfare,” and it’s not strictly off the books.

Under a program known as 127e (or 127-echo), U.S. special operations forces are authorized to essentially train up proxy forces to carry out U.S. missions abroad. An investigation by the Intercept found at least a dozen countries have played host to 127e operations from 2017 to 2020. Some environments are well known—like Syria, Yemen, and Iraq—while others in Tunisia, Cameroon, and Libya are less known.

The 127e missions are covered under a congressional war authorization, approved in 2001, which allows U.S. forces to target al Qaeda or an “associate force.” That legal wiggle room—in place for more than two decades—has often been criticized, but attempts to repeal it have been unsuccessful.

Ebright, the author of a forthcoming report on the legal methods used to pursue U.S. military operations abroad, told Foreign Policy such a broad interpretation risks undermining U.S. democratic accountability: “We go to the ballot box, and we dont know: Where are we fighting? Who are we fighting? What are the costs of us fighting both in terms of U.S. dollars and U.S. lives as well as civilian lives abroad?”

If the United Arab Emirates has its way, the United States may be making a more transparent commitment of forces in the near future. Recent reports indicate that the United States may soon enter a formal defense agreement with the UAE, complete with security guarantees—an arrangement not even enjoyed by Israel.

Jon Hoffman, writing in Foreign Policy on Monday, has cautioned against the approach, arguing that such a move is bound to fail—investing U.S. resources and credibility into regimes that are inherently fragile.

“From a strategic perspective, the move risks cementing Washington’s commitment to the primary underlying structural problem in the Middle East—the authoritarian status quo—while yielding virtually zero benefits for the United States, particularly as it pertains to high oil prices,” Hoffman writes.


What We’re Following Today

Ukraine’s grain. Russia and Ukraine made progress on efforts to export Ukraine’s grain, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a statement on Wednesday. The two sides have agreed to set up a coordination center to organize the safety of shipping routes as well as establish joint checks on grain leaving Ukrainian ports. The apparent breakthrough came after Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian, and United Nations officials met in Istanbul on Wednesday. Akar said a formal agreement will be signed next week.

Sri Lanka protests. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for a nationwide curfew after another day of protests following the flight of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday.

Protesters stormed Wickremesinghes offices on Wednesday, demanding his immediate resignation as he takes on the role of acting president. Wickremesinghe may yet stay on in his interim role if the country’s Parliament chooses him in a vote expected next week.

Italian politics. Italy’s government is in danger of collapse after one of its coalition parties indicated it would not support a vote of confidence tied to a new social spending plan. Giuseppe Conte, leader of the Five Star Movement and a former Italian prime minister, said his party would not take part in the vote, a decision that could have a domino effect on Italy’s unity government. It’s unclear whether Conte’s move is a negotiating tactic, as his party has been pushing for weeks for more generous social spending.


Keep an Eye On

A gloomy outlook. Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund, warned of further downgrades in global economic growth projections in a Wednesday blog post, citing the impact of the war in Ukraine and higher-than-expected inflation.

The prospect of a global recession has also spooked oil markets: U.S. benchmark oil prices have dipped from $121 a barrel to just under $100 over the past 30 days. On Wednesday, Canada made the most aggressive move of any G-7 nation to attempt to curb inflation, raising interest rates by an entire percentage point to 2.5 percent, its biggest one-time increase since 1998.

Solomon Islands-China ties. Solomon Islander Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told media on Wednesday that his country’s security agreement with China would not include a military base, as he sought to assuage Western fears over the country’s warming relationship with China.

“I have said it before, and I will say it again. That is not in someone’s interest, nor the interest of the region for any military base, to be established in any Pacific Island country, let alone Solomon Islands,” Sogavare said.

“I think the reason is simple: The reason is regionalism. The moment we establish a foreign military base, we immediately become an enemy, and we also put our country and our people as targets for potential military strikes,” he added.


Odds and Ends

An American tourist who fell into the crater of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius while attempting to retrieve his phone has survived with only minor injuries. Although the fall did not cost him his life, it may still cost him. Police issued a citation because he and his family had walked an unauthorized trail to the dormant volcano’s edge—allegedly to take a selfie.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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